By Tom Miller and Will Freeman
Beijingers call the hot and sticky months of July and August the “sauna” season. On muggy summer evenings, sensible locals sweat it out in the capital’s old lanes with sticks of fatty lamb kebabs and cold bottles of Yanjing beer.
But real men roll up their T-shirts under their armpits, ditch the pansy lager, and instead glug down the local firewater known as baijiu – a potent mash of sorghum, rice, unhusked barley and other grains.
For foreign businessmen forced to drink the stuff at countless banquets, baijiu provides an infamous challenge for the unconditioned palate. But this white spirit – generally 40-60 per cent alcohol by volume, but sometimes 70 per cent plus – is a mainstay of Chinese culture, first popularised during the Xia dynasty 4,000 years ago.
Baijiu, the world’s largest spirits category by volume, traditionally dominated the domestic booze market. But in recent years, sales volumes of China’s national liquor declined as beer, a foreign upstart, gulped up market share.
Now baijiu makers are fighting back with a proliferation of new luxury varieties designed to appeal to the country’s growing band of big spenders. Revenues are shooting up at major distilleries and baijiu is giving beer a run for its money.